Does Weight Training Make You Slower?
Ahhhh the weight room. A place where you will find some of the most interesting people, using some of the most interesting training methods. When you’re younger and first start going to the gym, teenagers will do some kind of bodybuilding workout that their friends show them. You know what? For many, this works!
For several reasons, anything you do in the gym at first can really produce results. Typically this progress is short-lived. You will plateau quickly and then often times your performance will start to actually degrade. What’s up with that?! Well, we are going to go into why this happens and then what to do to avoid performance loss.
The Beginner Improvement Phenomenon
During the summer of 2000, I had just turned A-PRO. We had some fantastic pro races around our local tracks. I figured it was time to get serious, so I bought a gym membership and proceeded to do some of the most bro-tastic workouts in the history of the gym world. Pumping iron, eating protein bars and riding the track a few times a week seemed to be the magic combo for BMX performance. It worked super well…until it didn’t anymore.
Turns out, adding weight to the leg press machine and incline dumbbell chest press did not add to the speed on my bike in the long run. I did start to get more jacked than any other time in my life. But after a while the added muscle seemed to slow me down a little. What the heck?!
My hypothesis for this happening is based on a little sports science. There is a thing called a FORCE – VELOCITY CURVE. Basically, the heavier the weight, the more force you can produce but the slower you will move that weight. The lighter the weight, the higher velocity you can achieve.
Force is important because it’s what initially moves an object (your pedals) to create high velocities. The trick is you need to essentially raise both ends of the curve without neglecting one or the other.
For most young BMXers, sprinting and doing gate starts is our main source of training. When we do this, we are mostly training at that upper end of the velocity side of the curve. Our muscles and nervous systems have optimized to make us good at being as fast as possible, but we have neglected training the force side of the curve. So the first time we load up the leg press as heavy as possible is probably the first time we really started working on producing force.
The Problem With Sticking to the Beginner Improvement Phenomenon Too Long
Building strength is easy, like real easy. Lift heavy weights and do a few reps, you will get stronger. Lift light weights and do a ton of repetitions and you will get stronger. You can lift them slowly or quickly and you will get stronger. It’s easy.
Building speed is much more difficult. If it were easy, we would all be racing Elite by now. Speed training requires us to do just enough super high quality, max effort training…but not too much. Speed development is much more than building muscles. It’s training the nervous system to fire quickly.
After we get the benefits of the added force productions, the extra muscle mass will start to deliver diminishing returns. The more we do, the less benefit we will get. We will also start converting a percentage of our precious fast twitch muscle mass to slower, more fatigue resistant muscle fiber. Noooooo!
Five Weight Training Tips for Long-Term Success
This topic could easily be turned into a book or two, so a section in one article will only scratch the surface.
1. Learn the basics! Hopefully you are healthy, active, and have some experience in the weight room already. If not, it’s crucial that you learn to Squat, Hinge, Press, Lunge, all with good control.
2. Follow a program. For many novice lifters, finding a good, well-rounded program and following it will produce great initial results. Note: Notice how programs increase in work over the weeks. This is called progressive overload. There are many ways to do this, but for most beginners, you don’t have to get fancy. Either do a few more reps with the same weight or add a little more weight and see if you can hit the same amount of reps.
3. After initial results from strength training, we start to train the force – velocity curve. As sprint athletes, it’s crucial that we train for power along with raw strength. We should be training heavy at certain periods and light and fast in others. You can, and should, combine them both in the same session at times. But I suggest that you take a block of time and emphasize one of those physical qualities more than the other.
4. Don’t forget what you are training for! Remember, we are training to be better BMXers, not the best at working out. I love the gym but I’m the first one to tell you that riding is the most important thing. Use weight training as a way to add to your sport, not become your sport.
5. Respect the Nervous System. Remember, speed is built by improving how quickly your nervous system can contract a group of muscles and relax others. This means rest in between efforts should be a minimum of 3 minutes. This goes for explosive lifts, sprints and gates. You also need to rest in between training sessions. You may want to start looking into technology that gives you a better idea of when and if you are rested properly so you know when to train again. Too soon and you won’t be as fast as possible. Wait too long and you don’t give yourself frequent enough stimulus to improve.
By just following these five tips you will be ahead of most people in training. If you come to a point where your progress hits another plateau, it’s time to find a good coach. You want someone that will listen to your goals and objectively determine what physical qualities you need to work on.
“If you coach yourself, you have an idiot for a client”
If there was one thing I could have done to have had better success in racing it would have been to stay away from girls until I was older. But if there was another thing, it would have been to hire a good coach. I would have done a better job at being accountable for training, and avoid making the mistake of doing the wrong things in the weight room.
—Jake Stephenitch NSCA-CPT, Functional Movement Specialist
Owner/trainer at sparkbmxtraining.com and sparkfitnessculture.com